Social media and the state: challenging the rules of engagement

2021-06-24

Social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp have increasingly become a stage on which the tension between state authorities and networked dissent plays out in Africa. The recent banning of Twitter by the Nigerian government is a timely reminder of that.

Differences expressed in online forums can generate responses in real-time, in the real world. This can create an environment in which the government’s monopoly on free speech is questioned.

Some challenges accompany the use of platforms with massive audiences. Yet the benefits can outweigh the risks if governments recognise that it gives them greater reach to their citizens.

The relationships between technology, speed and politics aren’t new. It’s argued that technology is radically reshaping the nature of political engagement worldwide. In Africa, Nigeria is an interesting illustration. Between 2019 and 2025, social media use in the country is projected to increase by more than 80%. This would result in over 44 million people using online forums in a country whose current population stands at over 200 million.

Online platforms enable citizens to express concerns and engage directly with those who govern

For political elites accustomed to manipulating electoral messages to secure votes, these platforms challenge their position of privilege – although those very same elites can also exploit them. Nigeria’s Twitter ban seeks to deny access to a platform the government argues is being used to threaten the country’s ‘corporate existence.’

Meanwhile, critics of the ban insist that social media is a democratic tool that enables citizens to demand greater accountability. This played out at the height of the Nigerian #EndSARS campaign against police brutality in 2020. Recently, the Economic Community of West African States Court of Justice ruled to restrain the Nigerian government from imposing sanctions on citizens who use Twitter.

Nigeria’s Twitter ban came after a post from President Muhammadu Buhari’s account was taken down by content moderators because it violated Twitter’s rules on abusive behaviour. The provocative tweet threatened to punish members of the separatist Indigenous People of Biafra group following attacks on government buildings and electoral offices. The group denied involvement in these attacks.

There is a longstanding conversation at the core of the social contract between the Nigerian state and the eastern part of the country where the Indigenous People of Biafra is based. This remains a painful but necessary dialogue that authorities have swept under the carpet for decades.

Communication technology is responsible for an estimated 10% of Nigeria’s gross domestic product

The Nigerian government says Twitter will continue to be outlawed until it registers an office in the country. This reflects a move to ensure the platform is subject to Nigeria’s media laws. But it could also shrink the democratic space by undermining public demands for improved governance in Africa’s most populous nation.

Beyond Nigeria, clashes between online platforms and governing authorities are happening across the continent. Uganda’s condemnation of Twitter’s suspension of numerous accounts in the lead-up to elections is one of the most notable examples.

An increasingly networked society in Africa has implications not only for political engagement but for economic development as well, not least in Nigeria – Africa’s largest economy. The country relies on emerging technology to help power economic growth, and internet forums enable greater reach of many businesses to potential customers.

In an economy where an estimated 24.59 million people use social media and business owners operate on Twitter via direct advertising or user engagement, some scholars estimate that communication technology is responsible for at least 10% of Nigeria’s gross domestic product.

Social media is arguably changing the relationship between governments and citizens

Nigeria is among several African countries seeking to introduce what human rights groups claim are punitive new laws to tightly regulate the online space, which would criminalise government criticism. Kenya is seeking to do the same. And rules introduced in Zambia in 2018 require WhatsApp group administrators to register with the authorities, subjecting them to similar codes of conduct as newspapers or media houses, or risk being arrested.

Some regulation is required to guard against hate speech and protect the most vulnerable in society from other forms of malicious communications. But the balance between free speech, privacy and security needs to be carefully calibrated.

Beyond the reach of traditional media, social media is arguably changing the relationship between governments and citizens. It challenges the notion that public debate can be moderated exclusively by the institutional might of the state. Rather than a top-down or hierarchical approach to setting free speech rules, these platforms accelerate the emergence of a bottom-up or networked approach.

As already noted, there are risks with such a framework as users have also evolved certain norms about content that’s acceptable (or not). In some instances, this has created its own dynamic, including a ‘cancel culture’ whereby individuals are blacklisted from these forums for transgressing socially acceptable norms. This form of self-regulation is in itself controversial.

There is a certain inevitability about the online space. This was observed in how Nigeria’s information ministry used Twitter to announce its ban of the platform – an irony that wasn’t lost on the world’s media.

So rather than adopting knee-jerk responses reflected in draconian laws, governments should recognise that these forums present a certain accessibility that citizens otherwise wouldn’t have. It enables them to express legitimate concerns and engage more directly with those who govern.

Banning social media platforms deprives governments and their citizens of an important communication tool and questions the commitment of a country’s leadership to transparent governance.

Akinola Olojo, Senior Researcher, Lake Chad Basin, ISS Dakar and Karen Allen, Senior Research Adviser, Emerging Threats in Africa, ISS Pretoria

This article was produced with the support of the Government of the Netherlands.

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Photo: REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo

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